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The Bloody State Gave Him The Power: A Swedish Sex Worker’s Murder

Petite Jasmine, 1986-2013 (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)
Petite Jasmine (Photo via her Facebook page, courtesy of Rose Alliance)

On Friday, Swedish sex workers’ rights organization Rose Alliance released this statement on Facebook: “Our board member, fierce activist, and friend Petite Jasmine got brutally murdered yesterday (11 July 2013). Several years ago she lost custody of her children as she was considered to be an unfit parent due to being a sex worker. The children were placed with their father regardless of him being abusive towards Jasmine. They told her she didn’t know what was good for her and that she was “romanticizing” prostitution, they said she lacked insight and didn’t realise sex work was a form of self-harm. He threatened and stalked her on numerous occasions.  She was never offered any protection. She fought the system through four trials and had finally started seeing her children again. Yesterday the father of her children killed her. She always said, “Even if I can’t get my kids back I will make sure this never happens to any other sex worker.” We will continue her fight. Justice for Jasmine!”

Rose Alliance coordinator Pye Jakobsson was gracious enough to answer some questions about Jasmine’s struggle with the state and murder for Tits and Sass.

Caty Simon: So, for starters, can you tell us a little bit about how you met Jasmine Petite and what she worked on for Rose Alliance?

Pye Jakobsson: Jasmine contacted me around three years ago, just after the local council took custody of her kids. She was looking for help with this and had been advised to contact us. Her main activism was around her own situation and others like hers, plus a lot of stuff around the Swedish Model.

Caty: The Swedish Model criminalizes the clients of sex workers in Sweden. How does it affect sex workers there?

Pye: The biggest overall result is the increased stigma. Practical results have to do with the police going after clients. Street workers have lost valuable assessment time they need before getting into a client’s car [because the clients are too nervous about arrest to stop and talk.—ed.]  Also, their clients have more control and can say, ” Don’t drive to that spot, I know a better one the police don’t know about.” Police target  indoor workers too, trying to catch their clients. That means the focus is now on making clients feel safe enough to see us, rather than us focusing on our own safety.  In addition, the pimping laws force us to work alone. It’s also illegal to rent out premises to us. Many work from home, and if the landlord finds out, he is forced to evict you. So they want to save us, but they punish us until we are willing to be saved. And if we say we want to be “saved,” all they offer is therapy [rather than economic alternatives—ed.]

Caty: Can you tell us a bit more about Jasmine’s custody battle? In the Facebook statement from Rose Alliance re: her murder, you guys wrote that she had been pathologized for not admitting that her sex work was a form of self-harm, and that her ex was given custody of the kids because she was a sex worker, despite the fact that she’d reported that he abused her. Can you elaborate on how the state justified taking her kids away from her?

Pye: She had kids with the same guy who was abusive towards her, mostly verbal abuse, though he was convicted for physical violence 12 years ago. They had already separated when the second child was born (the children are four and five now). So they had shared custody of the oldest and then she had sole custody of the youngest.

She was doing sex work as a way to stay at home with her kids, but after only a few months of working, a relative of hers called social services to let them know she was selling sex. The relative also called the father of the kids, who also called Social Services, claiming she took clients home, etc. The truth was she only worked in Stockholm, one hour away from the city where she lived.

TRENCHCOATx.com: Beyond Naughty Words Mad Libs

Current offerings on TRENCHCOATx
Current offerings on TRENCHCOATx

In March, Kayden Kross and Stoya launched TRENCHCOATx.com, a pay-per-scene porn site they describe as “curated smut.” The performer-run and owned site is powered by the vision of its two partners and stands in stark opposition to the search-optimized tube sites that are closing in on monopolizing porn distribution. As Stoya wrote about tube sites, “I believe the worst sorts of capitalists would consider Manwin’s behavior a win of the highest order.” She spoke to us last month shortly after the launch about the origins and intent of TRENCHCOATx and about workers seizing the means.

Stoya: For years, because we were both under contract together at the same company, on set or when we were signing stuff together or just like sitting at a coffee shop, we would do a lot of complaining about, “This is how it should be done, this is what I think would be the right process for having barrier-optional performance choices with regards to safer sex procedures like condoms and dental dams, how adult material should be described,” and our shared distaste for the way it was moving more and more to tags. Kayden described it best as “kindergarten Mad Libs of naughty words.” For years we’ve been both sitting there saying “This is how it should be and it would be perfect and magical!”

Activist Spotlight Interview: PJ Starr On Marcia Powell And Prison Abolition

Mother's Day protest at an Arizona prison (Photo by PJ Starr)
Mother’s Day protest at an Arizona prison. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Editor’s note, 8/31/2017: In light of Trump’s pardon of former sheriff Joe Arpaio for his contempt of court conviction re: the order to cease his reign of terror against immigrants in Arizona’s Maricopa County, we’re posting an updated edition of my September 2014 interview with PJ Starr. I interviewed Starr on her documentary about Marcia Powell, a sex worker left caged in the Arizona sun to die of heat stroke and dehydration in Perryville Prison. Arpaio is a mass inmate murderer and human rights violator. During his tenure as sheriff, many prisoners died of negligence and exposure, suicide in despair at intolerable conditions, and beatings from guards. Maricopa County paid out millions of dollars in lawsuits over these deaths. The Phoenix New-Times called them “a parade of corpses“, but Arpaio refused to disclose exactly how many prisoners had died. However, the paper verified that the rate of prisoner suicides alone in his facilities “dwarf[ed]” those of “other county lockups”. Arpaio himself once proudly called his tent city a “concentration camp.” His carceral tent city and chain gang model spread throughout the state, and Arpaio’s brutality was itself a reflection of the state’s violent, punitive criminal justice system. Powell wasn’t under Arpaio’s care when she died, but she went through his jail system, and the agony she suffered was a direct result of his approach to the prison industrial complex. Her blood is on his hands. And because of Arizona’s draconian prostitution mandatory minimums, many other sex workers endured Arpaio’s abuses as well. And yet, Arpaio himself is only a symptom of Arizona’s consistent disregard for prisoners’ human rights. 

I asked Starr a few additional questions this week which I’ve appended to the end of this interview, to find out what she learned about Arpaio in the course of making her documentary and working alongside SWOP-Phoenix.

Content warning: this post describes the murder of an imprisoned sex worker through neglect and human rights abuse in graphic detail. It also touches on structural violence and violence against sex workers in general.

I spoke to sex worker rights film maker and photographer PJ Starr about her upcoming documentary film, NO HUMAN INVOLVED, on the death of Arizona street worker Marcia Powell through prison brutality. The interview that follows is a composite of a week of e-mails between the two of us.

Who was Marcia Powell? 

Marcia Powell was arrested in 2008 for solicitation of prostitution and was sentenced to 27 months in Perryville Prison, a women’s prison located in Goodyear just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In 2009, while she was serving that sentence, she was left in a cage in the sun during the heat of the day for hours. She collapsed and some hours later died in a hospital in Goodyear when the Director of the Arizona Department of Corrections had her removed from life support.

Marcia should not be and cannot be defined solely by her death. Marcia Powell was a parent; she named one of her children—her daughter—”Eureka”. A former partner described her as “so beautiful she would stop traffic.” Marcia loved coffee, everyone who knew her in prison mentions that. She had experienced mental health issues, that was clear, but as one of her friends from Perryville said to me during an interview, “she had good sense.” On one hand, there is the public figure that Marcia came to be after her death, but, as is always the case, her story is much more nuanced than what we can contain in one news story. At points in her life she did not even choose to be “Marcia Powell.” She sometimes used another name, but in prison, her ID name Marcia Powell came to be how she was known and is now remembered.

How did you get the idea to make a film about her death?

Firstly, in 2009, when Marcia Powell died, my friend Cris Sardina (who is now the co-coordinator of Desiree Alliance, but then was involved with the Women’s Re-Entry Network in Arizona) sent me an e-mail telling me about what had happened. Cris’ message put the story in my mind and I continued to think about it for a long time. Secondly, I was given a space to be part of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative at the Maysles Institute in 2010 and the collaborative focused on writing a treatment for documentary film. I proposed three ideas to the other filmmakers and every person in the collaborative advocated for me to make a film about Marcia Powell. That was a wake up moment for me to think that other people outside of the movement for sex worker rights would be so affected by the story, so I prioritized the film. I thank the other filmmakers at Maysles for helping me see what was important for me to pursue.

Who is the intended audience for your film? What would you like viewers to learn about the prison system and survival sex work by watching No Human Involved?

I am very proud that we have the genre of representation that has been carefully encouraged by people like the incomparable Carol Leigh, and I am always keen to make films that speak to the sex worker community, but I have been working on this film with the aim of having a broader audience as well. I am aiming for the film to also resonate with people who may care about human rights or women’s issues already, but who really have not yet had information about what I am starting to think of as a conveyor belt that moves people along via arrests for prostitution, or related issues like “trespassing” of “camping” in urban areas, to the court where they have no choice but to plead guilty, to the prisons where they are at the mercy of a brutal system of incarceration.

In the promo video for your film, Peggy Plews laments, “How can sixteen people pass by a human being in a cage—defecating over herself and pleading to be let out—and do nothing?” Where does this systemic brutality come from? How can we combat it?

Yes, how can so many people ignore someone who is begging for water? Incarceration relies on categorization, dehumanization and a hierarchy of command that distances each person from responsibility. Part of the problem that day was that Marcia was not seen as a person in a cage by the officers walking by. She was viewed as an irritant, a thing to be ignored until the sounds (i.e., her pleas) stopped. But no matter how responsible those individuals are for what happened, there is equal responsibility held by the people who have designed the current approach within the Arizona Department of Corrections. People who institute and maintain systems of brutality have a vested interest in erasing its history so that it seems that the the system is “normal” and permanent, and that there is no way to create change.

The first step to being involved in change is then to learn how the system was set up so we can dismantle it. One excellent resource is the book Sunbelt Justice by Mona Lynch, which explains how Arizona’s carceral policies developed and the role that their approach plays in America’s current system of mass incarceration. Another step in combating brutality is to be in solidarity with prisoners, because wherever there is injustice there is always resistance. And perhaps one more element to remember is to keep an open mind about who can be part of standing up against the abuses as allies. There are people who have worked in Corrections who challenge the dehumanization and who have questioned what happened to Marcia Powell. The system is not as invulnerable to criticism from within as the leadership might want the public to think.

Not Good For Me: An Interview with Suzy Favor Hamilton

Suzy Favor Hamilton. (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)
Suzy Favor Hamilton (Courtesy of Favor Hamilton)

In 2012, former Olympian middle distance runner and motivational speaker Suzy Favor Hamilton was outed as a Vegas agency escort. Recently, Favor Hamilton published her memoir, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, telling the story of her childhood, her athletic career, her stint escorting, her family life, and her struggle with bipolar disorder. After reviewing the book for Tits and Sass, contributor Katie de Long had a conversation with Favor Hamilton over e-mail about the New York Times bestselling autobiography. The dialogue below is a condensed version of those e-mails.

What motivated you to write your memoir?
When I was outed, I was contacted by several writers within the first couple days. I was still in a heavily narcissistic mode, which […] can be pretty common with bipolar mania, especially when untreated.

At that time, I wanted to pretty much write a sex book, detailing my adventures in Las Vegas, capitalizing on my misfortune, so to speak. No mental illness aspect at all. No running, no childhood, just Vegas. At this time, I had no idea I was bipolar…and saw nothing wrong with me.

As time went along, my motivations changed, and I grew unsure I wanted to write a book at all. My parents were making it clear they did not want me to write a book. Others were advising me against it. Things had settled down, so why bring it all out in the open again?

As I began to achieve more clarity, and what had happened to me began to make more sense after diagnosis and treatment, my motivation for writing a memoir grew again. Before the escorting, I was speaking quite a bit about my brother’s suicide and my experience with anxiety and depression, so that desire to make a difference had always been there. I saw a memoir as the most effective way of making that difference, being better understood, sharing what is admittedly a complicated story, and doing so on my terms. I thought a book could have a more lasting impact on a bigger platform.

What do you hope people will learn about bipolar disorder from your book?
I wanted to show the common elements of denial, silence and stigma and how they prevent good people from getting help, and getting well. I want people to be aware of behaviors to look for, so they can help others or perhaps motivate those not yet diagnosed to seek help for themselves.

There are many people out there who don’t buy the whole idea of mental illness and bipolar and how bizarre behavior can stem from it. The “convenient excuse” argument. I hope my story might open a few minds.

Now that you are receiving treatment and establishing a new normal for yourself, do you find yourself being treated differently? Do some people expect you to be able to return to who you were before the disorder worsened?
My parents want the old me back, but I think they are accepting that won’t happen.

There is that perception that I’m not well, mainly when I speak about sex, dress a certain way, hang with a certain person, use my voice. Or, quite frankly, if I happen to be a little manic or depressed on a certain day (especially manic). I’ve learned with certain friends and family, I…stay away from certain topics…sit on my hands and smile, otherwise…they’ll just give me that concerned look. Others, they like “this me” who’s not afraid to be myself. [They] know my moods might change from day to day, even minute to minute. Those are the people I tend to gravitate to these days.

Those who don’t get mental illness think you have to be a non-functioning zombie when you’re manic…In many ways, you can be more productive, more creative, and go, go, go, etc. I believe my mania was a big reason I was a desired escort…My clients loved my mania. Disney, who hired me for their racing series, also loved my mania when I think about it. Zero inhibitions. Bubbly, sparkly. Life of the party. I had no off switch, no ceiling.

I am that imperfect girl, and I want to be that imperfect girl. What’s the bipolar? What’s the real me? I just know I want independence, [to] do what makes me content. I still want to live life to the fullest, live it with a little edge. Don’t want to live by others expectations. Be myself. But admittedly, I’m pulled into old habits often where I do what others expect of me. People are so accustomed to the old me that they think I’m not well when they see someone else.

Let’s say I were to want to go to Burning Man, go hiking with a couple of escort friends, post a beautiful nude portrait of myself that was done for me…many around me would raise red flags. I’m having to be something to please others and doing what drove me to craziness in the first place. So am I going to get criticized on occasion or told I’m not well? I suppose. Dr. Phil said as much when I was on his damn show.

Discussing Other People’s Lives: Social Work and Student Sex Workers

Adrienne and Annie's Student Sex Worker Outreach project pamphlet (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Graf)
Adrienne and Annie’s Student Sex Worker Outreach project pamphlet (Photo courtesy of Adrienne Graf)

Adrienne Graf and Annie O’Niell are two social workers whose focus  has been sex workers. O’Niell has experience as a sex worker and Graf is an ally. Together, they have facilitated workshops at the university, state and national level on how to work with students in the sex industry. Here, they have a conversation about their work as social workers reaching out to sex workers.

Annie: How does your work with sex workers intersect with social work?

Adrienne: Even before I started doing social work I have always been in community with many types of sex workers. I was privileged to get to interact with many different people around this topic, and receive a lot of education and exposure that my current work is based off of. So from very early on in my young adulthood I was thinking about sex work as legitimate labor and sex workers as people in my community facing different types of marginalization. When I started in social work,  I just always thought of social work as a profession working with and for various communities and sex workers are in our/those communities communities. So for me there was never a moment of “Wait, does social work address the concerns and experiences of people in the sex industry?” I always assumed that of course it would. Cue massive disillusionment.